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Leading EU foreign ministers meet on Iran, Libya

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Brussels (AFP)

The foreign ministers of four leading European powers meet in Brussels Tuesday for emergency talks on Iran and Libya, as the EU scrambles to respond to two escalating crises on its doorstep.

The talks between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, plus the EU diplomatic chief, will cover the fallout from the US killing of a top Iranian general as well as Tehran's latest step back from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The situation in Libya, where strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces have seized the coastal city of Sirte, is also the agenda.

The meeting comes as the EU searches for ways to contain the growing tensions in the major flashpoints on its periphery, as Iran threatens revenge for the death of Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab will hold a one-on-one meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has warned Iran against retaliating over Soleimani's death, before joining the German and Italian ministers for talks on Libya.

"The foreign secretary is travelling to Brussels today for talks with his European counterparts on the situation in the Middle East following the death of Soleimani and on the escalating conflict in Libya," the British foreign ministry said.

"The E3 will then meet to discuss the tensions between the US and Iran with all three pushing for de-escalation," it added, referring to Britain, France and Germany as the three European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal.

"The talks will also cover the nuclear deal following Iran's latest announcement on Sunday that it is withdrawing from further commitments in the deal."

The Libya meeting is due to start around two pm (1300 GMT), followed by the Iran talks.

- Targeted killing -

European powers on Monday criticised Iran's announcement that it was cutting its commitments under the nuclear deal, which has been steadily unravelling since US President Donald Trump withdrew and reimposed sanctions in May 2018.

But the possible repercussions from the killing of Soleimani -- the key player in Iran's network of alliances and proxy groups around the Middle East -- will be a more pressing concern.

The US operation took Washington's allies by surprise, and NATO held an urgent meeting of its ruling council on Monday to hear from American officials and discuss the future of the alliance's training mission in Iraq.

EU officials see the gathering of foreign ministers as a chance to hear the views of all 28 member states on the Iran situation, after differing public reactions to Soleimani's death.

Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Brussels for talks, but it is not clear if or when he might come.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi on Tuesday to say the alliance remains committed to the fight against the Islamic State group (IS) and would resume training activities -- suspended after Soleimani's death -- as soon as security improves.

In Libya, Haftar's capture of Sirte raised tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops to the country to protect the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The oil-rich North African country has been plunged into chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Borrell warned Monday that more intense fighting could soon break out around Tripoli and called for a political solution to the crisis.

The new European Commission has vowed to take on a more "geopolitical" role but the EU often finds itself hamstrung on foreign policy by internal differences. It took three days for President Ursula von der Leyen to issue a statement on Soleimani's killing.

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